WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has told U.S. lawmakers that a nuclear cooperation deal with Vietnam is unlikely to include a coveted promise by the Hanoi government not to enrich uranium, congressional aides say.
The United States had sought a no-enrichment pledge, which the State Department promotes as the "gold standard" for civilian nuclear cooperation accords.
It would have been modeled on a deal last year in which the United Arab Emirates pledged, in return for U.S. nuclear equipment and reactors, not to enrich uranium or extract plutonium from used reactor fuel – procedures that would provide material that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration has been eager to send a strong nonproliferation message, especially to Iran, which the United States and others accuse of covertly seeking nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, but it has resisted international pressure to stop enriching uranium.
A UAE-style deal with Vietnam could have been used by the United States to push other countries for similar commitments not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. Many countries, however, balk at what they consider an infringement on sovereignty. Countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have the right to enrich uranium for civilian use on their own soil under safeguards.
Two congressional aides familiar with the discussions said the Obama administration has concluded that it is unlikely to persuade Vietnam to agree to a UAE-style no-enrichment pledge. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Another congressional aide, briefed by the administration, said the talks with Vietnam are in their final stages.
The Vietnam development was reported first by The Wall Street Journal.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley would not talk about specifics of the deal with Vietnam. He called the UAE nuclear accord the "gold standard" and noted that the UAE had decided "that it would forgo the right of enrichment that every country in the world has."
"We certainly want to see other countries make that same kind of decision," Crowley said.
Asked if the United States would agree to a deal that would allow Hanoi to keep its right to enrich, Crowley said: "If a country decides to pursue nuclear energy, and a country decides that it chooses to enrich on its own soil, then we would prospectively work with that country" to make sure its program would meet all international safeguards and work with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Vuong Huu Tan, director of Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, said that "Vietnam does not plan to enrich uranium, which is a very sensitive issue."
The United States and Vietnam signed an agreement in March meant to pave the way for U.S. companies to help build nuclear power plants. The countries are now negotiating a broader deal that would allow U.S. companies to enter Vietnam's nuclear power sector.
Vietnamese officials say they also have signed nuclear energy cooperation agreements with Russia, China, France, South Korea, India and Argentina.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center think tank and a former Pentagon official, urged the White House to "step back and ask, `Does it make sense to be peddling nuclear cooperation as a way to make and influence friends there?'"
"This deal gives double standards a bad name. They need to slow down," he said. "If you're going to do it, then don't lower your standards. What does that buy you? Nothing but trouble."
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Washington and Tran Van Minh in Hanoi contributed to this report.